Formations 08.06.2017: An Eternal Perspective

1 Peter 1:13-25

A Passage of 1 Peter from a Byzantine New Testament

Josh Ritter began The Animal Years by singing these words: “Peter said to Paul, ‘you know all those words we wrote are just the rules of the game and the rules are the first to go.’” Ritter weaves a story together about these two characters, and in it, Peter, or at least this Peter, struggles to hold to the his proclamations of faith as he worries, grows angry and even hopeless, about the girl in the war.

Peter’s confession about losing faith in the face of suffering rings true. While it was war for this imagined Peter, for the audience of the real Peter, it was persecution that threatened their faith. And today, the words we’ve used to express our faith may fall short for any number of reasons.

For some of us, growing and changing awareness of the natural world may seem to leave the stories we have told about creation irrelevant. Or our experiences with sickness might call into question the understandings of God that we’ve been taught to hold. Watching violence play out might cause us to struggle to find hope in a God who brings peace. Whatever it is, for each of us, there seems to be some point when our experiences render powerless the words we’ve spoken about God, the world, and ourselves.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, that German martyr, struggled too with the words he had claimed. While imprisoned, he wrote a letter to his former student and co-conspirator Eberhard Bethge, expressing the same curiosity of the angels in 1 Peter 1:12, those angels who long to see what will be revealed. But he quickly follows this admission with a confession. Because while other prisoners and guards claimed that he radiated peace and joy, Bonhoeffer says, “The thing that keeps coming back to me is, what is Christianity, and indeed what is Christ, for us to-day?” (161).

He wasn’t sure what new words were needed but Bonhoeffer’s crisis of faith did not come from the same place as the challenges Peter’s audience faced. While the apostle’s church struggled with powerlessness amid an expansive empire, Bonhoeffer watched the German church align itself with empire, at times allowing and at other times supporting the rise of Nazi regime.

So while he was imprisoned, Bonhoeffer asked what became of religion when those who are religious fail to live these confessions out. To be sure, there were churches in Germany, like the Confessing Church, that sought to be an authentic witness. Still, the powerful church called into question his faith in religion to bear the gospel.

In many ways, our churches are like the various churches Bonhoeffer knew. At times, we have been authentic witnesses. But at other times, sometimes intentionally and sometimes misguided, our churches have aligned themselves with power. As we inherit traditions that have worked to freedom to the world, we also inherit traditions that have given theological support to slavery and the exclusion of women and the denial of all people’s full humanity.

As we face both our own suffering and the suffering we have caused others, we must ask how our words have fallen short of the eternal ideals of love and peace and justice and hope and faith.

When Peter’s audience asked this question, Peter told them to be holy as God is holy (v. 16). “Place your hope completely on the grace that will be brought to you when Jesus Christ is revealed,” and “ have your minds ready for action” (v. 13). To encourage those facing these questions of faith, Peter points to the enduring word of God (vv. 23, 25).

As Dietrich Bonhoeffer questioned the words he’d inherited, he also began to imagine what new words this eternal word might plant in their place. And in his letter, a vision begins to emerge of the church more fully ingrained in the world, with greater power to transform suffering. But the vision for Christianity that Bonhoeffer began to imagine wasn’t ultimately new. Rather, it was an old vision embodied by the Old Testament prophets (166).

In the places where we struggle to hold on to our confessions of faith, what enduring words can give us hope? And as we look to Peter with our questions, what words might God lead us to hear anew?

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison (New York: Macmillan, 1953) 161.

Discussion

• Where do you encounter suffering? Where do you experience suffering yourself? Where do you see suffering? Where do you see suffering that you have contributed to?
• What are the enduring words of God?
• When have you struggled to see the words of your faith has powerful and meaningful? How can you hold on to these expressions of faith? What new words from God might emerge in times of doubt?

Reference Shelf

The Word

The section closes with another look at how the recipients’ experience of salvation undergirds their love for each other. Returning to the idea of God’s re-begetting them (1:3), 1 Peter describes the divine “seed” that produced the readers’ new life as “imperishable” and as “the living and remaining word of God.” Modern readers in church will need to be reminded that in the late first century, Christians hearing “word of God” did not think “the Bible,” but “God’s word, delivered by ancient or contemporary prophets,” and “the Word,” meaning Christ. First Peter probably had the former sense in mind, as there are no places where “word” (logos) is identified as Christ, and because of the explanation given in vv. 24-25. To prove that the words God spoke through the ancient prophets were still living and in force, 1 Peter first quotes Isaiah 40:6-8, with its climactic “the Lord’s word remains forever.” But then he identifies that same “word” with the gospel message preached to the letter’s recipients by unnamed others (so also at 1:12), and so unifies God’s message then and now.

Richard B. Vinson, 1&2 Peter, Jude, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2010), 79–80.

Peter and Persecution

The theme of suffering has readily been recognized as underscoring the community’s situation, but that situation has not always been understood in the same way. Indeed earlier scholarship has generally seen this suffering as related to persecution and has usually focused on the “fire” terminology of 1:7 and 4:12 as well as the explicit parallels drawn with Jesus’ suffering (“sharing the sufferings of Christ”—4:13). Thus scholars routinely appealed to three persecution dates: the time of Nero (54–68), of Domitian (81–96), or of the Trajan-Pliny correspondence (c. 112).

More recent scholarship questions the wisdom of such an analysis and has concluded that 1 Peter focuses on Christian suffering not as a result of persecution but as the result of hostility, harassment, and social, unofficial ostracism on the part of the general populace. The author perceives the Christian reality as that of a minority culture within the Greco-Roman world. Beyond the realization of modern scholars that many references to early Roman persecutions were more imagined than real, careful analysis of the text of 1 Peter points also to such a conclusion. The “fire” imagery noted above describes not the suffering itself but its purpose, that of “purifying the believer’s faith” (use of “testing or trial” terminology). Furthermore, when 1 Peter speaks of suffering at the hands of nonbelievers, the treatment is described in terms of “speaking against or maligning” Christians as “evildoers” (2:12; 3:16) or of believers being “reviled or insulted on account of the name of Christ” (4:14), and these opponents are characterized by the term epereazo (3:16), people who “insult or treat with spite or abuse” (LSJ 620). The issue then is that of pagan slander or misunderstanding, and the addressees are exhorted to act honorably according to God’s will and thereby “silence the ignorance of foolish humans” (2:15). Also they are advised to “always be ready with a defense to anyone who demands . . . an accounting” (3:15).

Earl J. Richard, Reading 1 Peter, Jude, and 2 Peter: A Literary and Theological Commentary, Reading the New Testament (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2000), 16–17.

William Scruggs is a graduate of Mercer University. His favorite pastimes are adding music to his listening list, TV shows to his viewing list, and books to his reading list. When he isn’t pretending to check items off these lists, he spends time with friends and plays music. He is excited for the opportunity to continue exploring the rivers of Middle Georgia and to stay in Macon as an associate editor at Smyth & Helwys.

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